Duty's Heir - (Novel)

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Duty's Heir - (Novel)

Postby Larcen on May 18th, 2011, 5:05 pm

Prologue


The steady beat of hooves upon the dirt rang across the air with unnerving volume. It was made no better by the constant clattering of armor and arms borne by the torch-wielding riders who galloped across the countryside wreathed in the gloom of the night, their presence made known by the fiery glow that stood out in stark contrast against the darkness which seemed to have ensnared Mizahar in all it's entirety.

Wherever the mounted patrol went, the accompanying torchlight seemed to cause the land to eschew the darkness, scattering the sinister shadows while causing disturbed birds and frightened wildlife to take flight. Their gleaming armor and handsome standards that flapped as they rode, cast into sharp relief by the torches they carried, all proudly bore the mighty tree symbol of the Windoak - the highly esteemed coat-of-arms of the Syliran Knights. An order of such unerring valiance and vigilance that a mere mention of their order's name would have given pause to hardened criminals halfway across the world.

On this night, the riders, numbering half a dozen, rode with mixed feelings towards their given duty. One of them, a fair-haired youth with well-carved face of the sort women tended to find attractive, was inclined to be particularly vocal about it.

"It would appear to me, sir," the youth said in a voice of badly-concealed boredom while addressing the rider at the very fore of the party. "That we have been sent on a ride that seems to me a gross misappropriation of talent."

This topic appeared to have been brought up numerous times, for two of the other riders exchanged conspiratorial looks, while another rolled her eyes, and a fourth merely smiled wryly. The rider at the fore - whom had been addressed as 'sir' and was probably the leader of the group - kept a deadpan expression on his bleak aristocratic features, betraying no emotion save for a twitch of his lips. After a minute's pause, the Sergeant-Knight apparently decided to humor his young subordinate. "Do explain this remarkable hypothesis of yours, Ser Gavant," inquired Sergeant-Knight Balfrey in a gravelly voice well-suited to and well-practiced in the art of giving orders.

At the prospect of doing something other than looking around a bleak, night-darkened countryside in a show of diligence and getting his arse mauled into oblivion by hours on a warhorse's bumpy saddle, Gavant brightened immediately and launched into a well-rehearsed rant that was not without eloquence. "All of us here, indeed, all the men and women of our force, can be considered expert warriors and well-proven defenders of our creed and cause. I mean, you yourself, sir, would not be judged falsely if our commanders had paraded you forth as a martial paragon and a peer of command! I myself, evidently, untrained, but still, willing and diligent, am convinced that I, our wing, and you, sir, have been wholly wasted by the canny idiocies of high command."

"Oh?" Balfrey mused, speaking while keeping his senses constantly alert, eyes roving about the dark landscape before him. "And why, pray tell, do you feel this way, Ser Gavant?"

"Well, sir." Gavant begun, in a voice now heavily-tinged with an air of mock sadness. "For the men and women of our wing, it seems a gross mistake to have us ride about a countryside we can't actually see properly, on the excuse of patrol, wielding about torches like a child with a newfound toy, and pretending this benefits Syliras and the ideals taught by the Windoak, in any way. 'Tis, to me, and perhaps many others of a similar mind, a rather fool thing to do. If I might be so bold, I would say that, if we, ah, would we be properly used, it would be, say, upon the glorious field of battle with gleaming lances held to fore, sat upon giant destriers ready to charge into the fray as fearless as we." A pause. "Preferably cheered on by beautiful women. In particular, a certain, very beautiful woman, with strawberry blond hair that smells of the sweetest flowers, the most charming green eyes that put to shame any emerald brought forth, and a voice so melodic that all the songbirds in the world would be disgraced if she graced us with a song." A hopeful look from Gavant in the direction of the female rider beside him who had rolled her eyes earlier, and who, coincidentally, matched Gavant's flowery descriptions most accurately.

Her words, however, instead of being melodic, was a dry retort heavily laden with unconcealed distaste. "If you would please keep your genitalia in your pants, Ser Gavant, then I would be spared the thankless task of castrating you," said Vivana, her tone of voice making it perfectly clear it was no idle threat.

"Ah, but my dear Sera Vivana, am I to take that to mean you have, in fact, considered taking a peek?" Gavant ventured cheekily.

A rattle of chainmail and a sudden ringing in the air as a blade was drawn from it's sheath swiftly. Gavant swallowed, clearly not very comfortable with the dagger pointing in the general direction of his loins. Vivana held it there for a moment longer, then pulled it back and sheathed the blade, before edging her steed away from Gavant's and riding a little ahead of him. "If you show me your manhood, Gavant, I assure you, that you won't be getting it back."

"Oh. Ah. Understood." The youthful knight managed to reply, while the other three knights in the wing tried unsuccessfully not to laugh.

Amidst the faint snickers coming from his wing, Sergeant-Knight Balfrey raised his eyes to the heavens and wondered what he had done to deserve this. "Ser Gavant? Your argument is duly noted and at the earliest opportunity I will pass it on to our most esteemed Stewart Vallings should the occasion permit. I do ask, however, that you refrain from getting yourself castrated while you ride with me, for it is a bad mark upon both our records and would make a bit of a compromise towards your family tree. And, Sera Vivana? I ask that you keep your blade in check and refrain from sending any male genitalia flying into the air. While you ride with me, anyhow. Are we clear?"

"Yessir, thank you sir." the chastised Gavant replied quickly.

"Yes sir, my blade is checked as long as Ser Gavant's pants are kept in check as well, sir," Vivana deadpanned, leading to more snickers.

Balfrey resisted to urge to press his gauntleted palm to his face. He did, however, let escape a resigned sigh. "As you were."

The wing continued on their way without further conversation. It seemed the rest of the night's patrol would continue uneventfully, if not for the knight taking up the rear of the wing suddenly halting his horse mid-canter and clicking his tongue to get the attention of the others. Immediately, a low-volume chorus of whoa there's, and easy boy, filled the air, bringing the wing to a stop. Balfrey guided his stallion towards the rider at the rear who had halted the group, glancing at where the man was looking. "What is it, Wainley?"

Wainley, the disheveled-looking knight who had reacted to Gavant's rant with an indulgent smile along the lines of one a father would give to a playful son, kept silent. He was oldest among all the knights in the wing, older even than the Sergeant-Knight in his early thirties, for he was about to reach forty in a few months' time. He seemed to not notice how grizzled he looked, unconsciously nurturing his wild appearance with a stubble and long, messy locks of dark hair that ran unchecked at neck-length. After several more seconds of silence, Wainley inclined his head in the general direction of the south, towards a forested area the patrols rarely ventured into, preferring to keep to the roads. A general consensus within the wing was that Wainley's hearing, despite his age, was thoroughly unmatched. "In there." Wainley rasped. "Something's there. It's not an animal."

Balfrey turned his mount in that direction, the horse whinnying slightly in protest at the sudden jerking movement. "How many, exactly?"

The old warrior shrugged.

The Sergeant-Knight frowned as he stared into the gloom, unable to make out anything, or, indeed, hear anything. "Estimates?"

A pause. "No more than five," Wainley replied confidently. "No less than three."

Balfrey whipped the reins of his horse, causing the other knights to hurried follow suit as the Sergeant-Knight thundered forward to lead by example. "Prepare for five unidentified! Be ready to engage if necessary!"

"Think they're lost civilians, sir?" Gavant shouted from the back of the wing, straining to keep up with the sudden galloping pace.

"At this time of the knight? Unlikely!" Balfrey called back, placing just one hand of the reins so he could grab onto the hilt of the longsword hanging at his side with his other, now-free hand. He pulled the weapon free with a ringing report just as his stallion broke into a clearing in the forested woods; the torch-bearing Wainley followed after shortly, throwing light into the dark forest floor - letting the entire wing of knights behold a most gory sight.

"Windoak preserve us." Gavant muttered, breaking the silence while clasping a gauntleted hand to his mouth and trying not to relinquish his dinner.

On the leaf-strewn ground, badly-mutilated, vaguely humanoid corpses ringed a the remains of a long-expired campfire; flies buzzed about freely, feasting on the entrails spilled forth from the disemboweled victims of this vicious massacre. Two butchered mares lay some distance away from their dead masters, and an upturned wagon had spilled a cargo of splintered crates out onto the ground.

"Traders." Wainley offered. Balfrey grunted in affirmation.

"Bastards!" Vivana hissed, her rage barely kept in check as she looked around the ruined campsite. "The bastards!"

"Dismount. Gather evidence. Report everything you find. Be on your guard." Even as Balfrey spoke, he was getting off his stallion and holding his blade aloft. "Wainley, take the torch and head into the nearest surrounding bush, see if there's anything there. Vivana, go with him."

"Aye sir."

"Sir."

"The rest are with me. Let's search this campsite. Who else has a torch?"

Gavant glanced at two still-mounted knights. "Zaruah and Gaspard both have one each, sir."

The two other knights, who had remained silent throughout the night, now dismounted and advanced forward with torches held aloft. Zaruah, a swarthy, raven-haired knight with tribal markings all over her body, with held a spear in one hand and the torch in the other, sank her spear into the ground, then placed the freed hand on her hips and held the torch up high, letting the light fall upon the trees. "Doesn't look like the work of a beast," she offered.

Gaspard, a bald giant of a man whose armor looked like it was about to burst just from attempting to contain him, easily hefted a large axe in one hand that would have taken regular men both hands to hold, and held his torch up while pacing around the campsite. He shook his head grimly as he did so. "An atrocity," he rumbled in a deep voice. "They must be punished."

"Yes," Balfrey murmured distractedly as he squatted beside one of the corpses even as Gavant marched off to investigate the horses. "Gaspard, do you see this?"

The giant squatted as well, and squinted at what Balfrey was pointing out - the neck of the corpse. "Teeth marks."

"They don't look bestial, either," the Sergeant-Knight muttered, not without concern.

Gaspard was stripping the corpse now, tossing the ragged remnants of the clothing aside as he did so. "It's not just the neck, sir. They're all over the body."

Balfrey shuffled over to look, and frowned. "Bite-sized chunks of flesh have been removed from the body. Do you see?"

"And they're nowhere to be found." Gaspard added. "Cannibals?"

Both men looked at each other tentatively. "Myrians," both of them echoed in unison, looking noticeably disturbed.

"Sir!" Gavant called from behind the upturned wagon even as Zaruah marched past him; the raven-haired knight, having retrieved her spear, was busy using it to poke at the broken crates.

Balfrey rose from his investigation even as Gaspard continued to check the corpse. "What is it?" he asked as he walked over to Gavant, who frowning down at the wagon.

"This wagon, sir - all it's cargo appears to be untouched." Gavant pointed out, using his foot to nudge one of the crates. "Why would you attack a caravan, kill the traders, and leave all the cargo there? It makes no sense." The young knight sounded frustrated.

"Not common bandits, then." Balfrey mulled. "A mindless slaughter... But why?"

Zaruah tapped one of the crates, which she had broken open. Both Balfrey and Gavant glanced at the spilled contents of the crate.

"Wooden trinkets?" Balfrey inquired. He squatted down again, and picked one of them up. They were very fine wooden talismans with intricate artistic designs carved upon them, portraying a beautiful long-haired goddess.

Gavant stepped forward and looked at the piece Balfrey was holding. "Morwen," the young knight said.

"Morwen?" Balfrey repeated, albeit confused.

"Morwen - the Avanthalian Goddess of Winter. She's got a pretty large following in Taldera." Gavant blinked at the talisman. "That's very well-made."

"Sir." Gaspard called, pointing at the corpse he had been checking. "These traders were Vantha. Look-," the giant prised open the corpse's eyes, revealing a bright purple iris. "Dark skin. Black hair. I'm pretty sure they're Vantha. Also, the clothes look like they were made for withstanding the cold to me."

Balfrey nodded absentmindedly. "So, Vantha traders, coming in from Taldera, bringing in a cargo of wooden talismans depicting the Goddess of Winter."

"Vantha have made quite a name for themselves as expert woodcarvers." Zaruah added quietly.

"Yes..." The Sergeant-Knight looked away, frowning. "Question is - why were they attacked?"

Just then, a piercing female scream tore through the air, followed shortly after by familiar sound of the clash of steel upon steel.

Gavant paled. "Vivana."

"To arms, brethren!" Balfrey roared, bringing up his longsword as he charged into the woods, quickly followed by his subordinates. "Forward! In Sylir's name!"

The knights ran into the fray without hesitation, and soon came upon the scene of battle. They arrived just in time to see Wainley, with a kite shield in one hand and a sword in the other, fending off vicious blows from a hooded and heavily-robed individual who was delivering a rain of strikes upon the old knight's shield with an exotic-looking fanged blade. Just as Balfrey, leading the group, charged in with a hoarse battle-cry, Wainley's assailant noticed the newcomers and swiftly jumped away, causing Wainley to let down his guard. That moment's reprieve was all that it took for another similarly-garbed attacker to rise from the bushes to Wainley's rear, and throw forth a barbed javelin which tore into Wainley's side, throwing the veteran to the ground amidst a spray of blood, a look of surprise on his face as he fell.

Howling with rage, Gavant charged past Balfrey and headed straight for the javelin-thrower, who swiftly threw another projectile forward, which forced Gavant to halt in his tracks and raise his shield to take the javelin's blow, dragging him backwards slightly with the impetus of the strike.

Gaspard and Zaruah entered the fray soon after, forcing the javelin-thrower to back away into the darkness. There were more of the mysterious attackers to their flank, one of them bent over a fallen Vivana who was writhing on the ground, his mouth held open greedily as he leaned towards her neck. Balfrey shouted orders at Gavant to look after Wainley, then took several quick steps forward and swung his foot forth, delivering a vicious kick to the cannibal's thorax and sending him rolling out of the way. The other attackers set upon Balfrey then, but the Sergeant-Knight was swiftly assisted by Gaspard, who, with his immense mass, bodily charged the attackers aside. One of them tried to beset the giant from the flank with a sickle-shaped sword, but was unceremoniously speared by Zaruah coming at him from the fore.

The battle ended soon after. The attackers fading into the night's gloom as quickly as they had arrived, taking their injured with them. Zaruah, about to give chase, was stopped by Balfrey, who shook his head at her. "We've got wounded, and it's too dark out," the Sergeant-Knight pointed out. "Chasing after them will gain nothing. Gavant! Casualty report."

"Wainley's pretty messed up, sir." Gavant said tentatively while kneeling beside the unnervingly quiet veteran.

"Will he live?"

"If we get him back to base quickly enough, he will."

"Sera Vivana?"

"She's been bitten in the neck," Zaruah reported, squatting beside her writhing comrade. "We must return swiftly."

Balfrey looked weary. "We need to go back, then, and quickly. Gaspard, tie Wainley and Vivana's steeds to yours and take up the rear. Zaruah, let Vivana ride with you; Gavant, Wainley's in your care. Bandage up the wounded the best you can. I'll take point. Mount up."

As the wing set about preparing to depart, Balfrey walked over to where Zaruah had managed to spear one of their attackers. The assailant was gone, dragged away to safety by his fellows, but lying on the ground, amidst splattered droplets of blood, was a strange silver locket with a serpentine design upon it. Balfrey picked it up warily, and held it some distance away from his face cautiously before attempting to open it. It didn't work. He fiddled with it a bit longer, then decided the lock was too strong for him to prise apart manually. Tucking the locket away, he walked towards his waiting stallion, mounted up, and gave the order to ride for home.

There would be superiors waiting back home who would no doubt wish to be informed of this strange turn of events...

---

DUTY'S HEIR

An original story written for Mizahar, with canonical Mizaharian lore in mind.
Last edited by Larcen on May 18th, 2011, 5:18 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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